The first post office in St. Thomas was dated 1855. It was a small German Catholic farming community, named for St. Thomas the Apostle, which is also the name of their church. It was one of several Catholic communities founded by the Belgian Jesuit priest, Ferdinand Helias, who was known as the father of mid-Missouri German Catholics.
Some Germans were attracted to the Ozarks seeking religious freedom. Osage County attracted several thousand German Catholics whose principal reason for emigrating from Germany was religious. Their spiritual leader, Father Helias, established a parish in Westphalia in 1834, and in subsequent years seventeen settlements, composed primarily of Rhinelanders, were established in Osage, Cole, Miller and Maries counties.
I read that because the immigrants from various regions in Germany carried those tensions with them to these lands, he helped to settle them in communities which were ethnically differentiated. By the way, it was eye-opening for me to learn that in the German ancestry of my dad’s family, at least four different cultural and linguistic communities were represented–the East Frisians, the Rhinelanders, the Swabians, and the Westphalians. The Heislers were from the Swabian culture. (But more on that in another post.)
What about the Indigenous peoples who had lived in Cole County before? Well, their name remains in the river that winds through the area–the Osage River. St. Thomas was formed in a fertile bend of the Osage River. It was Osage Nation land before the settlers came. According to the website of St. Thomas the Apostle church:
The Indian Territorial Government established Cole County in 1821, paving the way for eager settlers to purchase this fertile land. Perched above the river bottom and close to today’s parish cemetery, German immigrants built a small log church for the families that lived in the area. Fr. Ferdinand Helias, S.J. began ministering to the needs of Catholics in this area in the early part of the 19th century. A larger frame church was built to support the Indian Bottom Settlement. As the city of St. Thomas took shape further east of the river, Father Peter Eysvogles, S.J. persuaded the families of Indian Bottom to move the church to this growing community.
I was struck by how the names “Indian Bottom” and “Osage River” spoke to the history of the land, even after its people had been removed. My own ancestors came a full generation after that removal, but definitely were among the settlers eager to purchase this newly “available” land. The Osage Indians had a wide ranging territory that included land now in the five U.S. states of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The first Europeans to meet them were the French explorers Joliet and Marquette in 1673.In 1803, when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase agreement with France, they claimed ownership of Osage territory. According to educational materials of the Osage Culture Traveling Trunk,
Between 1808 and 1872, the Osages had little choice but to cede all their lands in present-day Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, and most of their land in Oklahoma, to the U.S. Government. The last land cession was in 1872, when the Osages ceded their reservation in Kansas and moved to a new reservation in Oklahoma. This is the current Osage reservation.
You can find out much more information about the Osage on that website, which is dedicated to educating children in Missouri. I want to include one more map from that program to emphasize the extent of these ceded lands.
Special thanks to my cousin Jim Pattyn for sharing his genealogical research into our Johnson family.